‘The Ice Cave’: Journeys Into the Wild
Travel Books: Lucy Jane Bledsoe experienced wilderness from the Mojave to the Antarctic. Emily Stone calls her resulting essay collection layered, literary and unflinchingly honest about the solitude of travel.
01.08.07 | 7:35 AM ET
When Lucy Jane Bledsoe was three years old, her family took her on a wilderness trip. “I don’t remember toddling away from camp,” she writes in the second sentence of her essay collection, The Ice Cave, “but I do remember the luminescent ice cave and my sense of extraordinary wonder as I crawled into its deepest recess where the translucent blue encompassed me.” She was of course rescued from the unstable frozen structure. However, that early survival story didn’t so much set a precedent for other triumphs as it marked the beginning of a lifelong cycle of danger, excitement, fear and release.
Bledsoe is the creative force behind several National Geographic projects and she has the rare distinction of having been an artist-in-residence in Antarctica. She is unquestionably qualified to cover harsh terrain, both on foot and on the page. But she is also a standout among adventure writers because of her ambivalence about the contest between humans and their natural environment. In “The Freedom Machine,” the book’s first essay, Bledsoe celebrates desperation alongside, maybe even instead of, victory. Her protagonist is a woman named Barbara, whom she and a friend discovered, downtrodden and dehydrated, cycling across the Mojave Desert at high noon. By the time Bledsoe caught up with her, Barbara was 600 miles into a solo attempt to escape a bone-breaking, abusive marriage that had kept her trapped inside her own house for 20 years. Bledsoe artfully sketches the Mojave’s arid landscape and almost mythically oppressive heat, but she ensures that the feeling of necessity resonates more than any other part of Barbara’s journey.
The remaining 10 stories in “The Ice Cave” are set in a variety of wild destinations, including Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, Oregon’s Salmon River and a stormy patch of the Caribbean Sea. They also vary a great deal in style—some are lyrically written and intensely personal, while others are reserved and journalistic. But what holds this body of work together is Bledsoe’s contemplative literary sensibility. Whether her subject is the death of a friend from lymphoma or the resurgence of mountain lions in California’s forests, she layers each story of physical exertion with a discussion of the accompanying metaphysical journey.
Perhaps her greatest contribution to travel writing is her unflinching honesty about solitude. In “Above Treeline,” she explains the “new alienation” she feels when a much-anticipated private hiking trip fails to bring her the peace she was expecting. In “Reconnaissance,” she ruminates on how love and loneliness can go hand-in-hand; “it has something to do with the impossibility of being known…” she writes of an empty night that she shared with her partner in the Colorado Desert, “so the more years you put in with a person, even as a deep kind of comfort develops and passion endures, the more you feel devastatingly alone, alienated.” In one of the book’s final scenes, solace comes to the writer at an isolated encampment in the Antarctic, without anxiety despite the loss of radio contact with South Pole Station.
In the closing essay on Antarctica, “The Breath of Seals,” Bledsoe offers a final meditation on her “spiritual habitat in the wilderness.” During the remarkable summer when she was deployed to the white continent, she traced the path of explorer Ernest Shackleton, cataloged Weddell seals and helped reconstruct a severed ice pier. The story of the sub-zero expedition—along with backing from the National Science Foundation—no doubt motivated this essay collection’s publication. But, oddly, Bledsoe’s Antarctic experience is the least carefully told of all her tales. “The Breath of Seals” wanders in different directions for almost 50 pages, losing itself a few times in a snowdrift.
Still, Bledsoe offers a final display of her ability to balance confidence with uncertainty. And she fulfills the book’s implied promise—this time she brings the reader with her into the ice cave.